A Maltese physician, Dr Gauden Galea, is leading a World Health Organisation investigation into the outbreak of a deadly new coronavirus in China.
Dr Gauden Galea, a public health physician by profession, began working with the WHO in 1998 and has been their representative for China since April 2018. Shortly before China moved to lock down several cities earlier today, the WHO sent a team led by Dr Galea to check and inspect conditions on the ground in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, which is the epicentre of the deadly virus outbreak.
“To my knowledge, trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science. It has not been tried before as a public health measure, so we cannot at this stage say it will or will not work,” Dr Galea told Associated Press.
The five-member team lead by Dr Galea visited a local biosafety lab, a branch of China’s Center for Disease Control, a hospital buffed with increased safety protocols and the airport. Dr Galea spoke with health care workers, epidemiology inspectors and city officials who described and demonstrated how authorities are tracking, treating and combating the disease.
“It was very important for us to understand what was the extent of the outbreak and to get a bit of local colour on the reports. It’s one thing looking at dry tables and presentations, it’s another thing to see it on the ground and meeting the front-line workers and getting their own experience of the outbreak. … The situation has changed a lot already,” Dr Galea said about his visit to Wuhan.
Since mid-December, China has been struck by a Sars-like virus resulting in tens of millions under lockdown, more than 800 people infected and 25 deaths.
China’s National Health Commission said Friday morning the confirmed cases of the new coronavirus had risen to 830 with 25 deaths. The first death was also confirmed outside the central province of Hubei, where the capital, Wuhan, has been the epicenter of the outbreak.
“The numbers of cases are not in themselves a measure of seriousness,” Dr Galea said. “One of the patterns that we have seen is that as milder cases are detected, there has been a reduction in the percentage of the rate of people dying but it is too early to reach a full conclusion.”
“We are now daily hearing of massive increases in the numbers. Part of that increase is coming from the processing of specimens earlier. Another part is a broadening of the case definition. So numbers are going to increase. Even if they are in the thousands, this would not surprise us. That is not an indicator of seriousness. Indeed it is very, very good to get and identify as many cases as possible.”
The WHO has so far decided against declaring the outbreak of a global emergency. In the meantime, many countries are screening travellers from China for symptoms of the virus, which can cause fever, coughing, breathing difficulties and pneumonia.